“FISH ON!” The words excite those standing next to you on the frigid riverbanks while the caramel brown water is disturbed by one of the monsters it conceals. You better call out, “fish on”, when you hook into a steelhead, brown trout, or salmon as any of those game fish could be a monster under the surface and capable of tangling the lines of the anglers to your left and right as it runs and fights for its life. When a fish gets hooked, it seems like everyone in the general proximity pauses for a brief second, feels a shot of adrenaline that temporarily numbs the effects of the cold wind, and anticipates what will come to the surface when it is time to land the fish. After all, even the average fish caught on this river this time of year is likely trophy-size elsewhere. Fall fishing Oak Orchard in Western, NY between Niagara Falls and Rochester is a challenge for the sportsman and worth the weeks of preparation for a chance to take home a fish you will not easily forget. The trip isn’t for the faint of heart but the memories you’ll have from it will fill your mind and hunger for adventure easily. If I can do this trip, so can you and here is how.
Before you experience trophy-fish fever, recognize this type of trip requires some serious preparation. You need to consider where you will stay and which of the many lodges, Airbnb locations, or campsites fits your needs. You also need to think about the weather and dress accordingly for it underneath your waders. It isn’t uncommon for ice to form on your rod ends while you fish and given the proximity to Lake Ontario, you should prepare for snow and hope the winds don’t affect your comfort significantly. You will also need to find a good 9’ plus long rod with medium weight. I personally fish with a 9’ St. Croix Wild River rod and Quantum Smoke 25 spinning reel spooled with 10 pound line, 8 pound leader for my weights and 6 pound leader tied to my hook. This combination is strong enough to get the job done if you mind your drag, play your fish correctly, and avoid herky-jerky movements. Center pin fishing and fly fishing are also extremely popular and depending on your preference, size your rod/reel appropriately for the possibility of hooking into “the big one.” When in doubt, call up the local shops and ask the pros who live on the river what they use. If you really are lost, consider hiring a guide to help you land what you’re looking for.
Your preparation should also include the little details. This means preparing your tackle well in advance including Sheffield floats, Raven floats, micro swivels, size 10 Gamakatsu hooks, various leaders and split shot. Don’t forget a good landing net with a long handle and generously-sized net opening.
Most fishermen will use some variation of egg sacks tied with either salmon or trout eggs as bait in a myriad of colors with chartreuse being a common favorite.
You can purchase these eggs pre-cured and tie your own.
Resist the temptation to tie large sacks as 3 and 4 eggs in a single sack can attract a monster despite the diminutive size of the bait offering.
Since you need to get a good spot before anyone else, you will likely need to get to the river before sunrise and around 4:30 am making a warm seat pad to sit on and a headlamp to navigate the various goat paths and backwood trails excellent ideas. While you’re at it, don’t forget a Personal Floatation Device if you wish to fish downstream from the dam. You don’t want to get cited for not having one in an area where you could be swept away by the current. Last but not least, don’t forget to pack snacks and a thermos of hot coffee. You’ll want to hold onto your spot and leaving for lunch is a surefire way for someone to creep into your location while you grab some chow.
When you get to “the Oak”, you’ll find a parking lot filled with anglers and you can generally follow them down the paved path to the dam or through the woods to the river along a narrow path. Be mindful of private property and look for the signs to keep you from trespassing. If no one is present when you get there, just look for the lights down by the water and listen for the sounds of cascading water. Follow the white and red LED lights from the headlamps other fishermen are wearing to locate the good spots. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you pick up the distinct smell of rotten fish (old salmon that have died on the banks after spawning) and wet oak leaves. Just don’t post up and fish too closely to someone else as that is generally frowned upon. Look for a good pocket of water that has a distinct eddy line, mix of slow and fast water, or gravel bar if you can spot one. Wait until you notice others fishing (probably about 30 minutes before sunrise when you can see your float) and follow the natural rhythm that gets established. Cast your line at at 45 degree angle to the current upstream and watch your float. Keep your lines high and out of the water for the best float. The longer the pole, the easier this last point will be. Avoid casting your line over others along the riverbank. An occasional crossed line is not the end of the world and most fishermen will work with you to remedy the tangle but there have been some encounters witnessed where territorial fishermen were quick to cut the line of the guy deemed to be a threat to their presentation. When you see your float disappear below the surface, give your rod a quick lift and you’ll likely set the hook. Don’t forget the extra length of your steelhead rod can provide plenty of lift and you don’t want to pull your entire rig (hook, line, sinkers, float) out of the water and into the tree branches overhead.
Should you do it right and hook a fish, call out “fish on” to allow those around you to reel in. Your fish could run upstream, downstream, or across stream and if you hook into a king salmon, you’ll have to fight a fish on its last legs (I know, fish don’t have legs) just looking to spawn and die. Keep your drag just heavy enough to prevent breaking your line and let the action of your rod tire out the fish. Be prepared to wade downstream following the fish past the other fishermen to your side. Keep your rod tip high and pressure on. Don’t get discouraged if you lose a dozen fish over the course of the day as many will strike light and break free. If you have a buddy to fish with, he/she can work the net or you can ask a person on the riverbank to assist you. It is best to net the fish from the tail forward and scoop the net from behind it. If you are the one with the fish on, release the tension on your rod to let the fish fall right into the net when it is place directly behind the fish. Bring your fish to the riverbank, snap some cool guy photos, attach it to your stringer (make sure your stringer is substantial to hold some serious weight and leave the thin-cord sunfish stringer at home) and then take the hook out. I would be very careful handling a large fish at any point as they have plenty of fight and can slip from your hands easily.
When the weather gets the best of you, when you decide to call it a day, or when you limit out, the long walk with frozen joints, muscles, and bones begins. The trail you walked in on will be a thick muddy soup of brown clay that clogs felt-soled waders (I don’t recommend wearing them to begin with) and seems to hitchhike on your clothing for months to come. Watch your step and mind your rod ends as they can break when stuck on a tree branch or someone else walking in front of you.
When you leave the Oak, look for Jay’s fish cleaning right across the street. The folks who work there are able to process a fish for you in less than a minute. I only know this because I recorded the job on my phone’s camera a couple of times and was thoroughly impressed with how efficiently they work and how clean of a job they do. For $3 for a skin-on filet or $4 for a skin-off filet, you can save your time, energy, and knife edge (I know you want to use your Fiddleback F2) and let the pros do what they do so well. All of your fish is packaged in plastic shopping bags and you’re ready to throw them in a cooler of ice for the drive home. One word of advice, if you have a vacuum-sealer at home like a Foodsaver, pack it along. After cutting up and sealing your catch, you’ll have freezer-ready fish to go that will protect your precious catch from freezer burn.
After a day of fishing, you can either sit around your rented room, campsite, or backseat of your car parked on the side of the road to “camp in”, or you can spend a few bucks at a local hotspot, The Black North Inn. This bar/restaurant has a menu full of hearty meals to pack the calories on. It’s not uncommon to overhear fishing stories there and some exaggerated truths. If there is a bar where everyone knows your name, this is the one for the Oak. Should you decide you need a midday snack, you can get one here and then walk right outside and fish at the mouth of a river that meets the great lake.
The process of fishing the Oak is simple if you know what you’re doing and where you’re headed. Sure it is cold but that is part of the adventure. One of the most difficult aspects of any new trip is simply building up the willingness to try something new and enjoy the adventure of the unfamiliar. Afterall, there are only so many common factors we all face when we partake in a trip like this and the rest is up to you. What I suggest, beyond all of the recommendations in this Fiddleback Blog Post, is to make the trip your own. When I went recently with my friends Jay, Brian, Glenn, and Chuck, we rented a van and dubbed it, “War Wagon” making the 6 hour road trip a group experience. Glenn and Jay’s wife (brother/sister) prepared meals for us including biscuit-breakfast sandwiches, mac n’ cheese, and spiral ham. We took turns paying for gas, pushed one another to brave the cold day in and day out, rented a small cabin we all retreated to at the end of the night for fishing cabin laughs, and the group made the trip all the more fun. Doing a trip like this on your own is fun, having someone to laugh with reflecting on the memories you make for years to come is even better.
Knives & News
Sign up with your favorite email.